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Preserving Visual Music

Allegretto.jpg

After more than 70 years and the explosion of visual culture, the stunning animated films of Oskar Fischinger remain unparalleled. Fischinger, who emigrated to Los Angeles from Germany in 1936 and became one of the city's central figures in a burgeoning avant-garde filmmaking community, created dozens of dazzling visual explorations of sound. In Allegretto, for example, he used cell animation to make geometric shapes dance in a visual version of a score titled "Radio Dynamics." For his Motion Painting No. 1 from 1947, Fischinger used oil paints on plexiglas to craft an intricate, almost mandala-like meditation on sound, color and motion. Film historian and CalArts professor Bill Moritz described the work of Fischinger as "optical poetry" in a book of the same title, and the term underscores the challenges of finding the right phrase to capture Fischinger's beautiful melding of sound and image. While Fischinger's work is celebrated - his films have screened at numerous events internationally this year, and currently three of his paintings are in an exhibition at The Long Beach Museum of Art - the films risk continued deterioration as they age. What will happen if these films are lost forever?

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This question is tackled head-on by Cindy Keefer, Director of LA's Center for Visual Music, which is dedicated to this particular genre of experimental film. The Center's Web site is a rich resource for those interested in visual music, and the "store" section includes DVD releases of many of the most significant film projects. However, one of the Center's key objectives is preservation. In this context, CVM recently announced that it has received funds from the Avant-Garde Masters Grant (which is funded by The Film Foundation and managed by the National Film Preservation Foundation) to preserve three reels of Fischinger's original 35mm nitrate film experiments from his Raumlichtkunst multiple projector performances of the 1920s.

"CVM has received a series of film preservation grants and funding from public institutions and private sources over the past six years," explains Keefer, who lectures frequently on visual music. The funds have enabled CVM to "preserve films of significant cultural importance by Fischinger, Jordan Belson, Charles Dockum, John and James Whitney, Harry Smith, Jules Engel, Jud Yalkut, David Lebrun and others," she explains, adding that while these funds are helpful, they are unfortunately insufficient. "These grants only pay for a small portion of the films in need of preservation," she says. "Without additional support, many films of the visual music / experimental animation tradition will not survive for future generations." As younger artists discover projector performances, graphics-based filmmaking and the wonders of frame-by-frame animation, it's a good time to look back at the past, not just at the painstaking pre-digital labor of an artist like Fischinger, who worked daily for months on his motion paintings, but at his broader contributions to the history of cinema and the creation of a kind of visual culture specific to Los Angeles...

Anyway, those interested in Fischinger and film preservation should contact CVM as Keefer is looking not only for funds but for volunteers to help raise those funds. Contact Keefer through the CVM Web site.

The image included here is a still from Allegretto,(1936-1943) by Oskar Fischinger; (c) Fischinger Trust, courtesy CVM.